Professor Kaare Christensen is in many respects a seasoned scientist. He is 57 years old and has devoted virtually the whole of his career to the concept of age.
With funding from VELUX FONDEN, he has established Denmark’s first research centre devoted exclusively to aging, and ever since then has helped to place crucial insights into aging on the world map, while receiving both national and international grants.
Kaare Christensen and Danish Aging Research Center at University of Southern
Aging has always been a focal interest for VELUX FONDEN. As far back as in 1981, when Villum Kann Rasmussen founded VELUX FONDEN, age and aging was a recurring theme in the foundation’s grants.
On the one hand, the decision was made to support ‘active senior citizens’ who make a contribution for their own and others’ benefit. And on the other hand, Villum Kann Rasmussen was personally concerned about society’s general ‘youth fixation’. As he grew older himself, he was much taken up with the role of senior citizens in society – what did it mean to have lived a long life? Was it not possible to contribute to society in later life? How did advancing age affect physical functioning and mental faculties?
Both research into old age (geriatrics and gerontology) and ‘support for active senior citizens’ were inscribed as two of the priority areas in the foundation statutes.
Coincidence became a career path
As a medical doctor, Kaare Christensen worked at hospitals in Southern Denmark from 1989 to 1992. He became taken up with ‘why some people succumb to disease, but others do not?’, and ‘why are some babies born with congenital deformities?’. While starting his own family, he now set about studying the field of reproductive epidemiology. He was interested in making this field comprehensible to others than himself, and by something of a coincidence, he started researching why some twins were born with a cleft lip and palate, and others not. An American professor, with an interest in life-expectancy, learned of Kaare Christensen and invited him to join an American project.
This study of life-expectancy in twins that ran from 1995-2005 effectively launched Kaare Christensen’s career in aging research. In this project, many thousands of twins from the whole of Denmark were to be interviewed, and in 2000, VELUX FONDEN came on board with a grant for 100 digital cameras. This was because the twins also had to be photographed, so that a number of nurses and others could determine their ages.
Photos from the aging research4 images
The results were significant. Researchers around the world had for many years been trying to find an effective marker of aging, that is, an indicator of a person’s biological age, which may be higher or lower than their actual age, and is closely connected with life expectancy. Until then, researchers had largely focused on the body’s molecular building blocks, but without much luck. But the photographs worked! Not only were the nurses largely in agreement in their assessment, but the estimated age had the attributes of a good marker: it linked physical and intellectual function, disease and life-expectancy. Disadvantaged living conditions and an unhealthy lifestyle were also evidenced by an elevated estimated age. Overall, it proved to be more risky to look a year older than to be a year older. At the present time, testing is ongoing in medical practices, in which images of patients are incorporated in disease history and prognosis.
A first centre of excellence devoted to aging research
A couple of years later, Kaare Christensen launched the Danish Aging Research Center (DARC I) at the University of Southern Denmark, as the first of its kind in Denmark.
“I had received research funding from both the US and the EU for a good many years, and did wonder why I hadn’t yet succeeded in securing funding from Denmark”, says Kaare Christensen about the early years.
This made VELUX FONDEN the first in Denmark to give credence to aging research. This was implemented by a substantial grant from VELUX FONDEN of EUR 3 million (DKK 22 million). Five years later, this was followed up by yet another EUR 3.4 million (DKK 25 million) for the creation of DARC II.
5-year DARC I project – ‘Why do we age so differently?’
The centre has made it possible to set up an interdisciplinary alliance at the national level in which well-established research centres in epidemiology, social epidemiology and molecular gerontology collaborate on equal terms. The alliance has made it possible to study the significance of genetic and environmental factors for the cognitive and physical level of functioning of the elderly.
Funding: EUR 3 million (DKK 22 million) from VELUX FONDEN, 2007-2011
5-year DARC II project – ‘Are the years added to life, quality years?’
Findings from this study demonstrate that not only are more individuals attaining the highest ages, but that they do so at a higher level of functioning, not least intellectually, than in the past, and that there are grounds to expect this positive trend to continue.
Other positive findings have been evidence that older persons do not in the long term suffer cognitive damage from being under general anaesthesia for surgical interventions.
DARC II is looking for more genetic factors and mechanisms which in an interaction with environmental factors influence human biological aging. The outcomes of this research will ultimately also have applications in the care of elderly patients.
The centre continues to give interdisciplinarity pride of place, for example: all PhD projects are attached to two different institutions and have two supervisors. In this way, the centre is well on the way to training the coming generation of investigators in aging research with a broad basis.
Funding: EUR 3.4 million (DKK 25 million) from VELUX FONDEN, 2012-2018
General interest in the field
Since then, the original Danish Center for Aging Research has been joined by the Danish Center for Healthy Aging, and other foundations have also funded aging research. And society has generally had to embrace a shift in assumptions about the capabilities of its older population in terms of their activity level (travel, sports etc.), the later pensionable age and the value of retaining experienced older employees on the labour market. Society has gone from focusing on the young to waking up to what senior citizens have to offer.
Key messages from the aging research
Aging can be influenced, even among the oldest old.
Many more people are attaining the highest ages with their cognitive faculties relatively intact.
The old of the future can be expected to be even better functioning.
Physical appearance is a good biomarker of aging processes among the elderly.
Genetic factors significantly influence life-expectancy and functioning.
In 2016, Kaare Christensen received the substantial Sohlberg Nordic Prize in Gerontology.
He also received the prestigious Longevity Prize from Fondation IPSEN at the Gerontology Association of America meeting in New Orleans.
The future of aging research
In the grand scheme of things, Kaare Christensen believes that aging research is poised for even more breakthroughs. As our average life-expectancy increases, it is still interesting to look at the quality of added life years, and the state of the individual’s cognitive faculties.
“I am interested in the idea of a 4th age, meaning childhood, prime, old age and then the life years now being added to our life expectancy. Happily, our research indicates that the added years are ‘good years’ and not merely ‘life-prolonging’. However, attaining a high old age is rarely without its challenges, which makes it meaningful to research the key factors for maintaining quality of life among relative ‘high-fliers’ in old age. The aim is to work towards a better understanding and prioritisation of our initiatives and services for the elderly and the oldest old. Perhaps we should concern ourselves less with cholesterol counts and more with overall quality of life for the oldest old. And how does society treat its senior citizens, and what can it do better in relation to under- and overmedication of the elderly. There is certainly enough for researchers to be getting on with in the years ahead”, says Kaare Christensen.
For VELUX FONDEN’s executive director, Ane Hendriksen, the focus on aging research will be maintained as a priority theme.
“We are keen to support projects that dig deeper into the situation of elderly people who are lonely and lacking physical energy, and not least of the infirm elderly. How can we best assist them when they live longer? To that end, 2017 will also see us allocating funds in support of research projects within rehabilitation, medicines consumption in the elderly and cancer care for the elderly”, says Ane Hendriksen. /